When we first met Anna Friel’s Marcella Backland, she was an unflinching and incredibly capable detective – one who was willing to do whatever she must to get things done. At the end of season two, though, things changed. Dramatically so.
Because, via a course of hypnotherapy, Marcella learned that she was responsible for the death of her baby daughter, Juliette. Absolutely shattered by the revelation, she handed over full custody of her surviving children to ex-husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), assaulted DI Rav Sangha (Ray Panthaki) with a toilet lid, tore up her own face using a pair of scissors, and cut off all her hair.
The episode then flicked us forwards in time by nine days, when a man approached a disheveled and homeless Marcella living on the streets (still in her famous green parka, of course).
“The ending of season two was a collaborative decision with lots of talks between the team,” explains Friel. “But the whole premise was that Marcella no longer wants to be herself. She just doesn’t want to exist anymore.”
It seemed unlikely, when the ITV drama’s explosive season two finale aired, that we’d ever get more Marcella episodes. Indeed, even Friel couldn’t see a way forward for the character at first.
“She tried to kill herself,” she recalls. “She just jumped off the roof, and she’s finally solved her own deepest, darkest mystery, so everything’s been answered. But showrunner Hans Rosenfeldt always knew he wanted Marcella to go undercover.”
And that’s where we find Marcella at the beginning of season three. Her hair has been cropped into a choppy blonde bob, her scars have seemingly vanished, her wardrobe and make-up entirely different – and she’s deep undercover in Belfast, investigating the nefarious Maguire crime family.
The people around her, then, have no idea who she truly is. To them, she is the Northern Irish girl who became a cop in the Manchester police when she was 22 years old, worked her way up to detective, and fled back to Northern Ireland when she was discovered to be a corrupt officer.
They truly believe, essentially, that she is one of them. And this whole new setting, this whole new cast, means that series three is entirely accessible to those who have never seen an episode of Marcella in their lives.
“Even if you haven’t watched the first two seasons, this one can be watched as a standalone,” promises Friel.
Still, though, we have questions. What can we expect from Marcella/Keira this time around? How has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced the storyline? And will we ever see that iconic green parka again?
Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray met up with Friel herself over Zoom to put these very same questions to the talented actor ahead of the show’s premiere on 26 January.
Here’s what she learned.
Marcella is deep undercover as Keira in this season. How has she changed and what drives her now?
This has given her the opportunity to leave her past behind; no one knows who she is. She doesn’t even have to think of the name Marcella. She is Kira. And this mindset kind of lets her separate, I guess, her new self from the past.
Is there hope of redemption for Marcella?
That’s a clever question, and that was always my plea: I wanted a season about redemption because she’s not made the best choices – but, while I can’t understand some of those decisions, I don’t blame her for them.
Thankfully, this season is very much about Marcella redeeming herself. Yes, she might not be any good at giving herself advice, but she’s very good at taking the bad people down.
We watched Marcella do herself some serious physical harm at the end of the last season, but her face looks pristine in all the teasers. Is the healing process something that comes up in the series?
We know she took a very sharp pair of scissors to her cheek, and the series will take us back to show us what happened after that. I thought it was quite important for the viewers to see the healing process. But it’s not just the physical scars she’s dealing with; Marcella soon learns that she can’t run away from herself because, try as she might, she’s always going to have to face her reflection in the mirror. Keira will be very much haunted by Marcella, who acts as her subconscious, and there will be a battle between the two of them before too long.
That’s a very good point; this is a very different Marcella to the character you played before. How did you get into her mindset this time around?
Keira is a completely different character – she even walks differently! I mean, you would never see Marcella in a pair of heels and we see Keira…
Well, she’s still not able to walk properly in a pair of heels, but she’s much more feminine and overtly sexual. She uses that sexuality as a tool because she’s not afraid anymore. And we’ve never seen her do anything like that before.
This was a challenge in itself. Plus, with a whole new cast and setting, I didn’t quite know how to ground myself at first.
Did it feel a bit like being at a new school?
It felt like a whole new show, and was very discombobulating at the first. Exciting, but also quite scary because normally you’ve got a comfort when you’re going into season three of a series. But, thankfully, everyone’s been so wonderful and warm and welcoming.
Of course, anticipation for this season is really high because the show has been so heavily delayed…
If anyone can understand that frustration, it’s me. Especially when all the other countries in the world have been able to watch the season already and it’s been so successful! Through them, the show has found a whole new audience; people who didn’t watch the first two seasons burned through this as a standalone and then went back to the others. So, yes, it’s about time it comes out now in the UK.
Obviously Marcella was filmed before Covid-19 took hold. Do you think it’s important to have shows that don’t directly reference the pandemic?
I think we’ve all gone through a lot as a planet, what with the world being locked down. But even so, this series introduces us to a character who, despite the fact this was filmed before the pandemic, is constantly obsessed with hand sanitiser. He’s made his hands red raw because he is so scared of germs; he doesn’t even go in for meetings and prefers to do everything via Zoom because he doesn’t want to touch anything. I mean, what did showrunner Hans Rosenfeldt know all those years ago when he wrote this?
It would be remiss of us not to mention that Marcella became something of an unexpected fashion icon in the first two seasons thanks to that green coat. Can you see that happening again with Keira?
Keira hasn’t got one particular look; she has to keep changing and adapting herself based on who she thinks the Maguire family want her to be. But I think there’s a few sweaters with super deep V necklines that might be envied. It’s a kind of urban sporty look. And her coat this year… well, we put a lot of thought into bringing back the classic duffel. You’ll see that quite alot.
I suppose her wardrobe is very much now a uniform?
Exactly. Her clothes are what she hides behind, plus we had to change the whole wardrobe and the show’s colour palette because Marcella is blonde now, not brunette.
What would you say to anyone who has yet to watch a single episode of Marcella?
Well, you can watch season three and then go back and watch the first two if you like it, as it’s very much a standalone series. This one, though, I think is quite compelling. It has a wonderful soundtrack. They used budget wisely, so it’s incredibly cinematic. And Marcella is really very brave this time around.
I think she shows you just what a human can do in the face of adversity. You find that fire and dig deep and somehow find strength even though you have none, so she can be quite relatable. Plus, she remains completely unpredictable, which I find very exciting.
The first two episodes of the new series of ITV’s Marcella will air on Tuesday 26 January at 9pm and 10.05pm. All eight episodes of the series will be available to view on the ITV Hub the same night.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.